In July of 2005, Matt Murton was just outside of Knoxville, Tennessee and in all likelihood thinking most about his next game for the Cubs’ Double-A squad. Then his phone rang. His agent, on the other end of the line, explained the situation: Murton was headed to Florida—the place where he was born, and where he saw his first major leagues games—to join the Chicago Cubs. And so it came to be that on July 8th, 2005, Matt Murton made his debut in the major leagues, exactly two years after signing his contract with the Red Sox organization. Since then, he’s followed a career arc that has been hardly typical. But the moment of that first call is one he still recalls vividly.
It turns out that that call set him down a path he’s been down many times since. He’s made the journey between the buses and long commercial plane rides of the minor leagues to the top tier hotels and private planes of the big league club in one form or another many times since that first trip to Florida 11 years ago.
Now, after 6 seasons in Japan, he’s returned to this world of existing in both places: between the higher levels of the farm system and the major league roster. On Sunday, at Principal Park in Des Moines, Iowa, Murton had a good day. In its superficial simplicity, it still captured the scope of where he is right now: a player who has to keep performing and stay healthy in order to join the Cubs once again. To boil it down to the numbers, he walked, singled, hit a home run (a 5th inning blast that, interestingly enough, was his first homer as a member of the Triple-A Iowa Cubs since 2008), and drove in two runs in a 6-1 win over the Memphis Redbirds.
In the years between his major league debut and his eventual departure from baseball in the U.S. in 2009, he put together a career slash line of .286/.352/.436 in 346 games. Then, after 6 full seasons in Japan with the Hanshin Tigers, for whom he boasted an OPS just below .800 and amassed over 1,000 hits, Murton made the choice to return to baseball in the United States, making a full circle return to where he started.
I spoke to Murton at Principal Park on Sunday, just after his 2 for 3 day at the plate, and asked him about not only his decision to return to baseball here, but also his experiences moving from level to level in an organization.
Returning to the U.S. and to the Cubs organization
When he talked about his choice to return to the U.S. to continue his career, it was clear that, for him, it was all about opportunity. “When we got done at the end of this past year, I had spent 6 years with the Hanshin Tigers. My contract was up. I was the longest tenured foreign position player in their team history. Even guys who spend 10 years [in Japan] bounce from team to team. We [he and his family] were faced with the idea of moving to a new club or coming home, and I just knew the window of opportunity in this game is always short, and for me as I get older it gets shorter and shorter,” he said.
As far as where to return in Major League Baseball, there was interest from a few teams, but Murton saw the best opportunity with the Cubs. “To be able to come back with Theo, who drafted me, to give me the opportunity to come back with the Cubs. I knew there was a chance that I’d end up in Des Moines, and to be back here where I was comfortable and had friends and some family here… it just felt right,” he said. He also recognized and appreciated the work that the organization was doing as a whole, and liked the opportunity to be a part of it: “I really think there’s a special thing going here. I think they obviously have done a tremendous job of building an organization. Not just putting a team together, but building an organization. It’s just nice to be a part of that.”
Murton also commented on the difference between life in the Cubs farm system in the mid-2000s and now, and again, he highlighted a key difference in the organization that he’s observed since returning. Now, he sees a greater focus on preparing the minor league players for what they will see when, or if, they make it to the highest level. He said that the organization is doing a more deliberate job of bridging that gap, and noted a couple of things specifically: technology and nutrition.
“What you see now is simple things, like video. We get multiple angles. The video study and analysis is far more in depth than it was 10 years ago. There’s a lot more information given to you on the pitchers that you’re going to be facing that day.” Murton observed the difference in the care taken in keeping players physically healthy as well, and he said that there is greater emphasis on making sure players eat well and remarked on the presence of a nutritionist on the staff, something that wasn’t a part of minor league life 10 years ago. He also added that what is expected from the players has changed, saying, “The expectations of the players in regards to their pregame prep stuff has just increased. What they’re doing is preparing you for what you’re going to get at the major league level.”
For those players who will get that call, Murton knows that experience well, and remembers his first call to come to the Cubs 11 years ago. It was a time of nerves, sure, but he recalls the moment of stepping into the box against Dontrelle Willis and “not allowing the stage to make it bigger than what it is.” This isn’t to say that it wasn’t a tense moment. Murton remembered it vividly, but said that once that first pitch came in, it was “baseball as usual.” He sees the work that players are putting in at every level with the Cubs now, and, from top to bottom, it’s an organization that takes this work seriously.
Life in the minor leagues
It’s an interesting world to live in, the one he’s in now and has lived in before, with perhaps a foot in both camps. The day to day work of preparing and playing in the stadium that sits right where the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers meet in central Iowa, while keeping a bit of an eye on the team that’s just blocks away from Lake Michigan. I was especially curious about that experience. The life of working in the microcosm of Triple-A baseball while the possibility of getting that phone call looms. For Murton, it’s about surrender and focus. On one hand, he has a job to do and can’t control the circumstances within the organization that swirl around him. He has to be ready to play for the Cubs team whose uniform he puts on every day now, but he sees the importance of his preparation on a larger scale: “It’s about getting myself back to a level where I’m capable of and making the adjustment to playing baseball in the United States. If I can get that, if I can get myself back to where I need to be, and be an asset to the organization, then I can be a viable option for them. I know that if I’m doing what I’m capable of doing, I can help them.”
Even now, as news comes from Philadelphia of Jorge Soler’s trip to the disabled list after a hamstring injury on Monday night, Murton knows his role with the organization. Notably, Murton is almost exclusively a left fielder, the position that needed filling when Soler went down. For now, however, the call comes to a younger player, Albert Almora, so Murton waits and keeps working. He knows the importance of that work, that grind in the usually un-glamorous and plain world of minor league baseball, and as he said on Sunday, “If I’m not, then I’m not doing anybody any favors.”
The reality of what a championship, or even just a successful season will require does mean that though it didn’t come this time, Murton’s call might just happen later. As days like Monday in Philadelphia have shown with regularity, it takes an entire organization to reach the ultimate goal of a championship, especially in Chicago. As Murton said, “I’ve always said is it takes an entire organization to win a championship. It’s always going to take more than the 25 guys that break at the beginning of the year.” He knows the strength of the players on that 25 man roster now, but he also knows baseball. It’s fickle and unpredictable, so a guy like Murton has to be ready.
For the time being though, he’s manning left field in Iowa, and on days like Sunday, after a young fan surprises some in the stadium by naming him before the first pitch as her “Pick to Click,” he delivers. He’s seen enough to know that if he keeps doing that, his phone will ring again.
Lead photo courtesy Mark J. Rebilas—USA Today Sports.